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Program Management vs Project Management: 5 Critical Differences

        posted by , February 23, 2013

The standard way to explain the difference between program and project management goes something like this:

Project Managers manage projects and Program Managers manage a portfolio of projects.

Such definitions leave much to be desired. They have led to the myth that Program Management is glorified Project Management. In fact, there are 5 fundamental differences between the roles:

1. Programs are Ongoing, Projects End

Programs usually span a far greater duration than a project. This might seem like an arbitrary difference. However, managing a program involves long term strategic planning that's not required of a project.

The ongoing nature of programs also means that they engage in continuous process improvement.

2. Programs are Tied to the Organization's Financial Calendar

Program managers are often responsible for delivering results tied to the organization's financial calendar.

Lais of Corinth

Projects run on project time. A project manager isn't responsible for delivering quarterly results.

Program managers are often driven by quarterly results as with the rest of the business.

3. Program Management is Governance Intensive

Programs are typically governed by a senior level board that provides direction, oversight, and control. Program managers must be able to influence at this level. They must also facilitate resolution of disagreements between executives.

The program manager must ensure that the governance board provides achievable objectives for the program and must deliver to these objectives.

Projects may have a similar governance structure. However, they tend to be less governance-intensive.

4. Programs Have Greater Scope of Financial Management

Projects typically have a straight-forward budget. Project financial management is focused on spending to budget.

Program Managers may be responsible for revenue and costs that are critical to an organization's financial results. Budget planning, management and control is significantly more complex in the context of a program.

5. Program Change Management is an Executive Leadership Capability

Projects employ a formal change management process.

Program change is more difficult to manage. Programs are driven by an organization's strategy. They are subject to market conditions and changing business goals.

At the program level, change management requires executive leadership skills.

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